Friday, February 12, 2010

Character in fiction and life

Character. Ah.

Everyone said my dad was a wonderful character. And he was. But what did those other people mean? When he was young (and even when he wasn't) they meant he was glamorous (he was tremendously good-looking; he told great jokes; he had a colourful past which he played on shamelessly; he was brilliant at making friends, at picking up languages and so making contacts all over the world). My dad cheered people up and made them feel good. What they didn't know was that he suffered from depression: only we in the family ever knew it.

So when I say that my dad was a great character, I mean something quite different: I mean he was complex, that his identity was fluid, he was a different man in the outside world from the one he was inside his home - or no, he was both, or all, of those characters, because we too were graced by his charm and his wit, and we looked at him through a kind of double or multiple exposure.

And then there's this other thing: when I was young I was apparently a pain in the neck. I argued with my father, usually when he was in his darker phases, and caused a load of tension in the household. But I'm really not like that now (I guess I eventually I learned my lesson), and I think many people would characterise me as some kind of amenable diplomatic type (though maybe Fictionbitch betrays me). But you know, whenever I go back home that old personality gets there before me, and I can sense everyone getting tense in case I start being too outspoken and causing arguments and trouble. Basically (because I have been away for so long), my family believe I am other than I am nowadays, and if you asked my sister to write a story about me I bet many people wouldn't recognize that character as me.

So as a writer I'm really very suspicious of the concept of 'character'. I know writers go on about characters taking them over and talking to them, and I do know that experience, and it is very exciting when it seems to happen. But you know, the truth is that all our fiction characters are products of our own psyches and ways of looking at people and the world. Any 'character' is just one aspect of this: an individual writer's idiosyncratic viewpoint.


Adrian said...

Really interesting. There's something in here about "change" as well isn't there? Not all novels cover a whole life, so we tend to see a character at a point in time, but change in the character is important. I think Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead would be a good example, his demons were always there - he's only truly "himself" in the hermetic life he creates at university, or in the squalid dependency of his last days. At Brideshead he changes, or his family see him differently. Even Heathcliff, if you read the novel carefully, is a character that we see change - and I think that's why he remains alluring. We've seen him as the urchin, the beaten up boy, the playmate of Cathy. As real people we accept this as the case - I changed schools at 16, and it enabled me to leave certain preconceptions behind, but if I meet any of them now, they'll still probably have them - yet in fiction do we sometimes ask that our favourite characters can't or won't change?

Elizabeth Baines said...

Great point. There's often so much talk of 'consistency' in creating characters, but the truth about life of course is that we're never consistent, and indeed we change considerably, quite often making total reversals. Heathcliffe's a good case in point.